Sobering Up in 2001
America’s complex system of higher
education is not performing up to its claims
By David B. Laird, Jr.
David B. Laird, Jr. is president of
the Minnesota Private College Council.
THE NATIONAL CENTER for Public Policy and Higher Education has offered the leadership of our
nation and our states a great service in its new report, Measuring Up 2000. The report is timely,
appropriate, stimulating, alarming, targeted, balanced and perhaps too polite.
The central point of the report is that the complex system of American higher education is not
performing up to its claims, nor to the level of excellence that will be required to maintain a compet-itive
place in a rapidly changing world economy, or to maintain a stable society at home. We must
cease to be so self-protective in addressing this challenge.
In spite of its sobering and challenging messages, the report has received muted coverage in
the media. In many nations of the world, such a report would result in a national uproar and the
loss of face for political leadership. If we continue to ignore recent signals, including those in this
report, we will do so at our own political, economic and social peril.
For a number of decades the United States has been comforted in the blind confidence that
we have the finest higher education “system” in the world. Unless we truly believe that all of our
institutions perform as well as Harvard, Stanford, Michigan and Berkeley, then we must ask
whether we consciously resist working hard enough to make it so. The measures in Measuring Up
2000 strongly indicate that the patterns of higher education success vary greatly from state to state,
probably from institution to institution, and that there is great resistance to assessing them.
Our competition worldwide is energized, organized and committed. The announcement last
year that the United States now ranks behind Norway, Great Britain and the Netherlands in the
production of undergraduate degrees per capita should be an alarm for those who do not believe
that the United States has competition in higher education.
Measuring Up 2000 is an important wakeup call to the leadership of our states and nation. If
we are to successfully compete in the future, we will need an honest national discussion and a
realignment of state and federal priorities to make all of our institutions more competitive and
aligned to economic and social needs.
The conclusion in this report that the bene-fits
of higher education are “unevenly and often
unfairly distributed” is at odds with the political
rhetoric of the last 30 years. We must address the
fact that we are mortgaging the future of our chil-dren
through government, consumer and student
debt that together will create its own future eco-nomic
While the individual benefits of a higher
education are indeed both real and significant,
we are requiring our young people to borrow
more from their future income than any other generation in our history. Our resistance to financial
planning for college, especially among the affluent, and our continuing demands for additional
subsidies for higher income families, will be self-defeating if the result is to significantly expand the
gulf between those who succeed and those who do not in our economy and our society.
As the consistent “Incomplete” for all states in the report card surely suggests, it is time to
place a new emphasis on measuring the results of both individuals and institutions. And, they must
be measured against rigorous, qualitative standards reflecting our global competition and the ever-changing
needs of both our society and our economy.
We have much work to do together. Let us spend our efforts trying to meet our challenges
rather than arguing about the validity of the judgments that this report contains.